The Science Of Dating
-14/02/08- Got someone special lined up to take you out for a romantic meal this Valentine's Day evening? Well look no further to find the answer to all your dating problems. Hayden Selvadurai explains the scientific ins and outs of the dating game.
When you break it down to a purely evolutionary level, selecting a mate is arguably the most important decision you’ll ever make. While you may not consciously be thinking about wedding bells and baby prams when you first start dating someone (in fact you are likely going to take steps to actively avoid baby prams in nine months time), your actions are pretty much dictated by that primeval desire to find a fit set of genes with which to procreate. Alongside eating, sleeping and running away from predators, this is one of the most basic biological urges, shared by all sexually reproducing members of the animal kingdom. This fact is evident throughout the whole ordeal that is the human dating ritual.
Fight or flight: the dating dilemma
With such an important end goal, it’s not surprising that when on a first date you find yourself sitting with that familiar feeling of anticipation and mild panic as you wait for the young lady or gent to arrive. This feeling is caused, in part, by increased firing of neurons in regions of the brain known to control the “fight or flight” response to perceived threats.
The link between this response and mate selection was demonstrated by a famous experiment back in the 1970s, which showed that sexual attraction is increased in men during times of heightened fear or anxiety. After walking along a wobbly suspension bridge over a gaping chasm, men were much more likely to hit on the attractive female experimenter than men who had walked across a stable bridge over a shallow drop.
The link between fear and attraction is said to be due to the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is released en masse at times of terror, or during that first rush of physical attraction, and explains the butterflies you get in your stomach as you see your date approach you from across the room.
The concept of attractiveness is simple - good looks are an advertisement for sound genetic make up. The physical signs of genetic fitness, and how we read them, are a tad more complicated.
Scientific theories of attraction abound; from pheromones to figure, immune system to ovulation (less scientific theories are also covered ad nauseum in the esteemed publications Cosmopolitan and FHM). As we know, however, theory is no substitute for practice. During the course of any date you’ll find yourself engaging in a process of mutual scrutiny of these “attractive” factors, while at the same time trying to sell yourself as a potential mate. An exhausting yet enjoyable process commonly referred to as flirting.
If all goes your way during this arduous negotiation process and the time-tested flirting tactics you employ – such as touching, smiling, listening and nodding – are reciprocated, you’ll hopefully find yourselves staring into each other’s eyes
in a state of lust. This feeling, often mistaken as ‘love’, is physiologically quite similar to the yearning junkies experience when waiting for their next hit. In fact, the brain regions that are activated when people in newly established relationships stare at pictures of their loved ones are known to be involved in the reward response triggered by some drugs – the dopamine, or “pleasure” hormone response.
The feeling of love or lust is what creates the drive for sex (a physical act which results in the release of a host of ‘natural high’ neurotransmitters such as serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin) and is undoubtedly what motivates a guy to walk his date back to her place. While consciously you may have nothing but good intentions, your actions are being driven by a fundamental reward system - walk her home and your odds of having sex and getting a release of pleasurable brain chemicals is greater.
At this crucial time, however, a period of relentless awkwardness ensues. Internal debate rages as you try to pluck up the courage to go in for a goodnight snog. The importance of that first kiss was demonstrated well by a study published last year, which postulates kissing to be one of the make-or-break moments in mate selection. By comparing the perception of kissing between genders, the study found that (unsurprisingly) women place a wealth of emotional importance on a kiss, while men see it merely as a means to an end.
Thus, once you overcome your internal dissonance and plant one on her lips you find yourself standing on her doorstep in a state of elation, confusion and sexual frustration as she thanks you for a lovely evening and sends you on your way.
As we all know from personal experience, the science behind the ritual of mate selection and relationship propagation is complex to say the least. An almost unfathomable amount of subtle variables interact in the delicate and mysterious dance of human dating. But ultimately, the fact that babies are made means that it works, and is passed on to the next generation, whether through our genes or taught behaviour. Regardless, it looks like you’ll be walking it off tonight champ.
If you liked this then check out some other bits of Hayden's work here.
And if Valentine's Day has really sent you soppy, just gaze at these cute frogs... Or take a look at these other loved up articles.
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Image: Patrycja Cieszkowska